Rather than provide a response, Lucrecia Martel selects to illustrate.
Bending towards a diminutive black leather rucksack at the bottom of her seat, she extracts a black ink pen. Subsequently, she draws a straight line along the brown kraft paper tablecloth.
I had recently posed a query to her regarding the correlation between the main action and the background action in her movies.
“This is the gist of it,” she explains. “The displays I design are two-dimensional but they offer a glimpse into something three-dimensional.
That depth”–here she motions with her pen, making a sweeping gesture–“extends beyond the boundary of the screen. It goes further; it is not just limited to what you can see.”
In the numerous interviews that Lucrecia Martel has granted in her homeland Argentina to promote her peculiar film Zama, she has always been careful to avoid repeating herself. The same holds true for our present exchange of ideas.
It’s November 2017 and we are in Roman’s, a popular eatery owned by restaurateur Andrew Tarlow, where diners gather at the bar waiting for tables.
Martel sips a leisurely lime soda as the clock nears six in the afternoon, the air being heavy and fragrant with dried leaves in Brooklyn’s autumn.
She came to New York two weeks ago to seek a global distributor for her film, Zama, and not only did she find one, but also learned it was chosen to represent Argentina in the Oscars. It’s a peculiar choice since the movie won’t even be nominated.
Martel is not a mainstream director, but in the US she has gained a small but devoted fan base, something she is not totally aware of.
Since the release of her groundbreaking debut, The Swamp (La cienaga), in 2001, Martel has been a cornerstone of the New Argentine Cinema (NAC).
This movement was spearheaded by Bruno Stagnaro, Adrian Caetano, Pablo Trapero, and Lisandro Alonso, with Lita Stantic as a key producer.
The themes of the NAC have shifted away from Argentine post-military coup topics such as genocide, state terrorism, and censorship, and focus on the destinies of the new democratic lower and middle classes.
Zama marks a break in continuity and a change in direction for the NAC.
Martel is often considered one of the most innovative Latin American filmmakers of all time, with an aesthetic that combines the thrills, suspense and visuals of an American zombie apocalypse with the social commentary of Italian neorealism.
Her first three movies, The Swamp (2001), The Holy Girl (2004), _and The Headless Woman _(2008), all take place in her native province of Salta and have been the focus of multiple professional and academic reviews.
Last year, Brad Epps, a distinguished scholar of Latin American film, praised Martel as “a key figure in contemporary world cinema and one of its greatest stylists”.
At the height of her fame, Martel stepped away from the limelight for a decade.
During this time, she toyed with the concept of creating a sci-fi film inspired by the Argentine comic book El eternauta, by Héctor German Oesterheld and Alberto Breccia, but it never came to fruition. Then, out of nowhere in 2010, Zama presented itself.
Drawing from Antonio Di Benedetto’s novel, Lucrecia Martel’s Zama showcases the tale of Don Diego de Zama, an officer in the Spanish crown stationed in Paraguay in the years prior to the South American revolutions.
The film weaves together a tapestry of male angst, obsession, and disillusionment, following its protagonist with the suspense of a horror film.
As a child, Martel experienced a parallel fascination with colonial history and suspense. Until the mid-’70s, her family occupied a worn-out but sizable house in Salta.
The structure featured several rooms that opened to a vibrant tiled patio, with the largest space used for storage. Her father, a paint shop proprietor, filled the room with bags of pigment powder and stacks of wood chips.
During her secret trips there, Martel imagined herself to be an astronaut, investigating the red, mountainous terrain of Mars or the depths of a secret lunar crater.
Adjacent to the storage room was a guest room (the “habitacion de huespedes”), which Martel and her siblings, due to a mispronunciation, called “Guemes room.”
Martin Miguel de Guemes was a prominent figure in the Argentine independence movement, having been a mounted gaucho and caudillo who fought with General Manuel Belgrano at Suipacha, before being fatally shot in Salta, though he rode to his death in the La Rioja town of Chemical.
The young Martels, however, had the impression that the guest room contained the remains of Guemes. These forbidden corners soon came to represent a gateway to a different realm.
In the storage room, a bookshelf held a book with the image of an Arab prince on its cover: Tales of the Alhambra by Washington Irving.
The mere sight of it made the Martel siblings cry out in terror, and they scrambled onto the stack of paint bags. This particular book had a significant role in an important family event: the demise of Martel’s great-grandfather.
Martel remembers that when his maternal grandfather passed away, two books fell off the bookshelf. One of them, he and his sisters were certain, was Tales of the Alhambra.
He now ponders if the unexpected appearance of books amidst the paint and wood chips where he spent his most marvelous hours shaped his relationship with reading.
Unusual enough, even though they departed from that house, he scarcely knew how to pronounce the word Alhambra._
More than thirty years later, the memories of the tales, and the atmosphere remain in the shadows of Zama.
_ –Pablo Calvi’s words_
When Martel made her way to New York in 2001 to present her work The Swamp, the city was in a state of upheaval. Now, it is Hollywood with its traditionally male-oriented system that appears to be on the verge of breaking down.
One may ask why there is an apparent lack of female directors in the commercial film industry.
LUCRECIA MARTEL: It’s enigmatic to me why so many outstanding female directors have been ignored… Why? I’m uncertain.
It’s too simplistic to assume it’s just sexism. I don’t know what the cause could be. I also think it’s natural that, as time passes, filmmaking should become a largely female-led endeavor. I have a strong conviction that this is going to occur. I do have an idea why I’m so sure… It is true.
What is the reason for this?
In my opinion, a particular kind of cinema that has its own language requires risk-taking. Women are more likely to be encouraged to try and fail than men, so it is easier for them to have the courage to take risks.
I always advise my students that it’s essential for women to acquire the abilities to overcome technical issues and to handle unpredictable scenarios. There is an unfortunate tendency for women to embrace a macho attitude which ultimately leaves them with less proficiency.
BLVR: Do you think that there are competent female directors of photography, however?
LM contends that there are not many female DPs since many are inclined to think that their technical expertise is limited to paper and pencil only.
This is incorrect, for a lot of knowledge is required to be accomplished in this field. Machismo brings about two different kinds of education – one for men and one for women. The former is easily criticized whereas the latter is still unacknowledged.
Women who are unaware of how to work with tools, who become helpless when something goes wrong, or in the dark, are a result of this nefarious education.
Thus, they are not adequately equipped to handle such situations as they have been historically delegated to men.
In order to make progress, LM believes that we must first battle against our own education, as well as against the external model which has made women less capable than men in certain areas.
At the time of our first communication, the Harvey Weinstein situation had only just become public knowledge, thus I suggested that we correspond by email in a few months.
BLVR: Since the emergence of the #MeToo movement, I am curious to ask: why is there a dearth of female directors in the Hollywood industry? Is this same issue prevalent in Latin America, a place that is known for its machismo culture?
In the Argentine film industry, the percentage of men and women in key roles is not yet equal, though there is a strong presence of women.
The United States’ film industry was established many years ago with a macho cultural matrix, and now it is being dissolved.
There is a need for the justice system to address allegations of power abuse, while also avoiding the media becoming a platform for unjust “trials”. It is clear that people are no longer tolerating the mistreatment of women.
In the 1980s, Martel’s father purchased a VHS camcorder. At that time, there were not many such devices in the city of Salta, nor were there many places to teach how to utilize them.
Nonetheless, she dedicated herself to the task at hand with the aim of becoming well-versed in operating the camera – all its features. Martel humorously remarks: “If it had been a microwave, I would have put in the same amount of enthusiasm.”
Martel had six siblings who she used as test subjects for her filming. “I put the camera in various areas of the residence and left it there for a few hours, periodically exchanging the cassettes.
When I went through what I had recorded, I saw that there was something extraordinary. One of the first things I noticed was the sound that was not on the screen. There is something going on outside the visual plane.”
BLVR: How come you focus so much on the score and sound effects of Zama, when they have no correlation to the visuals?
LM: A solid idea is fundamental to any film; it’s the foundation for what I will capture on set. We must not be able to see everything in order to see and understand more.
Fragments are how we tell stories in cinema – sound and visuals. Each frame is a fragment, and sound can be used to evoke a larger world beyond that fragment.
Jack Foley was the one who first provided sound effects to what was seen on the movie screen. As a sound engineer, however, I take it a step further by bringing sound to what isn’t seen. Without this approach, the audio feels redundant.
As a director, I strive to put audio to the elements that are not visible on the screen, as these components often bear more narrative significance than those that can be seen.
Do you believe that the sound work you do has something to do with a certain female sensitivity, which critics have associated with Zama, both the book and the movie?
LM suggested that the sensitivity in Zama is typically associated with the female perception and that it is a reflection of an individual’s desire, inability to fulfill it, and obstinacy in holding to a certain function and position.
BLVR: Is the sound employed to emphasize that particular type of masculinity? An effect which is used quite frequently in your other films is absent in this one.
LM: The auditory illusion known as the Shepard tone.
The noise BLVR makes is comparable to a buzzing in one’s ears.
LM found the Shepard tone – an auditory illusion that consists of scales that appear to be in a perpetual descent – while searching for sound effects for the film.
Shepard discovered that between two notes of different pitches, there is an acoustic similarity that connects them in the listener’s perception.
To LM, the illusion was ideal for the movie given its resemblance to a bottomless fall, which he thought could not be more desperate.
BLVR claims that Zama is an abyss of despair.
LM: Absolutely. There are many different kinds of cicadas and frogs that make a Shepard sound (uooooo, uuoooooo). We gave it a try to use these natural sounds but it didn’t pan out. We then decided to go down a more experimental, musical route.
This movie is an endless plummet and the sound replicates that motion. It’s a sound that would be unexpected in a period movie and I found that intriguing. That sound put us in an up-to-date emotional state with the character.
BLVR: The film is composed of two sections – one that appears more genuine and the other more like a fever dream. In a conversation, you mentioned that you were ill…
LM: Yes, however, this was prior to shooting.
BLVR asked if the contamination had impacted the motion picture.
LM expressed that the movie provided her with a sense of comfort and insight into some of the topics portrayed, such as a fresh outlook on life.
BLVR inquired if the person had undergone any kind of treatment.
LM revealed that they had cervical cancer and had to go through a six month treatment back in March of 2017.
Fortunately, the last results indicated that there was no trace of the disease left. The treatment process had been very exhausting, with radiation and chemotherapy being a part of it.
Although they were in remission, they needed to stay mindful and make sure the cancer did not come back.
III. TO EXPRESS THAT ONE WANTS TO CREATE A FILM ADAPTATION OF A PARTICULAR NOVEL IS TO SAY SOMETHING THAT IS NOT FEASIBLE.
In the area of Salta close to where Martel was raised, there is a large dam covering 62,000 acres of land.
This was where she picked up sailing. Unlike on a river, this lake offered a more open experience and Martel contends that sound is similar to what a lake is to a river – it broadens one’s outlook.
Vision is like a river, taking the mind along a linear path, whereas sound is multidimensional and extends one’s understanding.
“Shaking a bedsheet and allowing the light to come through the window reveals a plethora of particles in the air,” she comments. “It is almost as if these particles are tiny pieces of time in a non-linear, expansive space.
Writing, emotions, and perspectives can all be expressed in a variety of ways, which don’t necessarily obey the conventions of linearity or sequence. This open, volumetric representation feels more akin to an organic view of time than a linear one.”
BLVR: What was the timeline for you reading Zama?
In the year 2010, I took it upon myself to sail down the Parana River in a wooden boat that I owned with two companions.
Our goal was to reach Asuncion, Paraguay. To make the journey more interesting, I had brought along a selection of books that focused on the river and the expeditions that had taken place.
BLVR asked what the time was when the individual acquired the proficiency to navigate a sailboat.
At the age of fifteen, I was initiated into sailing on a dam in Salta. After I relocated to Buenos Aires, I enrolled for a sailing course for vessels of a larger size.
BLVR: Is water something that you appreciate?
I am a big fan of boats. Not only am I fond of the water, but I am particularly drawn to boats.
BLVR: As you navigated the Parana by boat…
I had the opportunity to read Zama when I found one of the books I had was this very same title.
BLVR: What other publications did you possess?
Argentine Mesopotamia saw multiple expeditions over the course of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, particularly along the Parana and Paraguay Rivers.
These were led and chronicled by the Bermejo explorers, such as Juan and Manuel Sola, Adrian Fernandez Cornejo, and Felipe Azara, who wrote books about their experiences.
Many of these publications are not particularly renowned.
BLVR: What was the timeline for when you began to read Zama?
Approximately two weeks after departing from Buenos Aires, the entire journey took an entire month and a half.
Upon reading the novel, I told my friends, “I believe I want to make a movie based on this”. It was an outrageous thought to have, as making a film of that novel seemed unfeasible, especially considering the kinds of movies I had been producing.
However, my conviction began to build up and…
BLVR suggests that Zama’s ultimate query, “Do you want to live?,” is more of an existential inquiry than a circumstantial one. Is the question relevant beyond the principal character?
LM: The film ultimately concludes on a positive note as Zama responds with a “yes” to the question posed to him. This “yes” symbolizes the start of something new and unknown, with potential for a better future.
The same question is something we all ponder, especially when life seems hard, as it can be so tempting to simply give up.
BLVR: Is it possible that, like Zama, if we question ourselves as a species on if we want to continue living, then we have a better shot at success?
LM: I believe that once all the plans you made have gone awry and you are taking the necessary steps to alter that, you are in an ideal position that no other human being can experience.
This is to say, straying far away from whatever is restricting you. If Zama decides to give up and accept his demise, it signals that what he lost–his standing, his previous life–was all he could have ever aspired for.
However, if he chooses to move on and keep living, it is a declaration that he still has a chance to lead a life that is far better.
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